Students have learnt about the solar system, stars and gravity for many generations, and pioneering of the use of satellites in education began almost as soon as the first Sputnik had been launched in 1961. However, it was not until the late 1970s, when imagery of the Earth from space began to become available, that its potential as a teaching aid started to emerge.
By the 1980s a significant number of UK schools were installing facilities so they could receive live signals or data from existing satellites. The potential of space as a significant and constructive teaching support was being widely recognised. But what was also being realised was the fact that the successful use of space in education depended on it being accessible on a cheap, easy, routine and regular basis by all schools.
Limiting factors included the high cost of satellite activity and the fact that the available satellites were not designed for school education. In addition, there was an almost complete lack of the support materials and services needed by teachers.
Things improved in the 1990s with a number of national and international organisations expressing an interest in helping to introduce space into education. Even so, the use of space and satellites in UK mainstream education was still far less than it could be – particularly because materials specifically tailored for use in the teaching of the National Curriculum and examination syllabuses hardly existed.
The Spacelink Initiative was conceived in an environment where space had been used in a limited but largely successful way in education for 15 years. Whilst highlighting some of the potential benefits to science education, that earlier work also highlighted some serious drawbacks:-
Lack of suitable access to space: There were no payloads designed for easy, lost-cost and effective use by school students, able to support a range of space-related experiment, observations and other activities matched to curriculum requirements, or able to deliver data precisely as needed for effective use in schools.
Lack of IT facilities: A space-oriented service necessitated having schools equipped with computers, internet access and, equally important, teachers trained in the use of such facilities.
School circumstances: Other constraints on making effective use of space and satellites by schools, such as the lack of appropriate teacher training facilities.